Coal, coal, dirty coal, go away: Advocates are trying to define the clean way forward
Fifteen years ago, the image of brand-new, tall white wind turbines in the Columbia River Gorge and the Gulliver-sized pinwheels that began to pop up on farm lands throughout the state seemed like some happy-ever-after future, a time when residents and businesses all acknowledged that a couple centuries of coal burning had been a horrible, terrible, really rotten idea and that we all would move forward with wind and solar energy into a clean and healthy future.
But that future has not fully arrived yet. A few states—like Hawaii, which is transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy sources—have brought that future into reality, but, by and large, and in Oregon, wind and solar energy remain the exception not the rule in America. In spite of the wide-spread popular support for generating energy from cleaner sources, major power providers like Pacific Power still pull a reported two-thirds of its energy from coal. Currently, only 10 percent of Oregon’s electricity comes from solar or wind.
This session of the Oregon legislature, though, advocates are hoping that a couple bills will bring that future of clean energy to present day, and fully push coal into the dirty past; namely, HB 4036/SB 1547, better known as the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Bill, is racing against time—and pushing back against doubters—to greatly reduce coal-based electricity and push towards solar and wind-generated power. The bill has strong support from the voting population, with one survey conducted by FM3, a California-based political consultant, finding that seven out of 10 voting Oregonians support the idea.
“Coal is an antiquated and unhealthy source of power. It’s generally understood that we need to leave it in the past,” said Brad Reed, Director of Communications for Renew Oregon. “What’s keeping our economy as a whole from a quicker transition to clean energy is a small, powerful and wealthy set of interests that profit from the old way of doing things.”
Roughly one-third of Oregon’s carbon pollution comes from coal-based electricity and advocates say that this plan will cut that in half—and even though there is only one active coal plant in Oregon, which is slated to close in 2020, advocates point out that it is not simply about what is happening in our backyard; it is also about shifting the supply and demand equation for clean energy.
A decade ago, the Oregon state legislature set the goal to reduce carbon emissions 75 percent below 1990-levels by 2050; yet those numbers have barely budged. Now, advocates are hoping to translate those wishes for less carbon emissions into a defined roadmap how to reach those goals.
“The utilities won’t reach those goals under business as usual,” said Reed, before quickly adding, “They’re very likely to if this bill passes.”
Moreover, Reed pointed out that the bill is building on proven plans; specifically, in 2007, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) was passed into law by the Oregon state legislature, requiring large electric utilities to obtain 25 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2025. “It’s the law now,” he explained, “and it’s what we hope will be expanded to 50 percent by 2040 with the new bill.”
Reed said that much of the debate over the current bill echoes opposition from a decade ago. “They say, ‘Will this actually cut pollution?’ ‘What will happen to the electric bills?’ ‘Will utilities provide constant power?’”
But Reed answers those doubts with nearly a decade worth of data and reality, first off pointing out that Oregon electricity sector has cut is carbon pollution by nearly a third since implementation of RPS.
“Electric bills were not noticeably affected,” he added, “and in fact in some years utilities saved money from switching to renewables. And every time we flip a light switch in Oregon, the power comes on.”
On February 15, the State House of Representatives approved HB 4036, and volleyed it to the Senate for approval. (That step towards legislative victory gained national attention, including gloating from Leonard DiCaprio, who posted a photo of Crater Lake to his Instagram account, and pronounced victory. On Sunday evening, the actor also used his acceptance speech for Best Actor to continue to pontificate more generally about taking measures to curb carbon emissions.)
Yet, in spite of this movement towards reality, perhaps the biggest obstacle for the bill, though, is time. With the state legislative session wrapping up this week (after press time), it is unclear whether the State Senate will have time to approve the bill.
But, all is not lost if legislative action is not taken: If the bill does not pass, Renew Oregon plans to place the matter on November’s ballot.
“Renew Oregon has continued to prepare to let voters decide, if legislators don’t finish this important work,” indicated Reed.
“A large majority of Oregonians support the transition from coal to clean energy and they want it now,” he added. “We can’t afford to wait to do something to protect the climate.”